Tony Meola Exclusive: Former USMNT Keeper Talks Hall of Fame, MLS, Bryce Harper
Ten minutes are all Tony Meola will have to sum up a memorable 20 years in professional soccer.
Meola, a veteran of three World Cups and 2000 Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player, will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Wednesday. And when he gives his acceptance speech, he'll have only 10 minutes to thank everybody.
Thankfully, Meola spent a little more time speaking with B/R World Football Lead Blogger Michael Cummings on Tuesday, and during that time, Meola talked about some of the most influential figures in his life, from a long-ago hero to his longtime coach.
Meola, who made 100 senior appearances for the US from 1988-2006, also spoke about the development of MLS, the state of the US National Team, his Hall of Fame speech and fellow inductees, Brazil and Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper.
Read on for the full interview.
On Helping Kids
Bleacher Report: I understand you’re working with Allstate and the Boys and Girls Club in Landover, Md. What can you tell me about that?
Tony Meola: I’m happy to be part of, for the second year now, Allstate’s sponsorship of the US Men’s National Team, as well as Major League Soccer. One of the things that we do with this program is that the night before each game that we’re a part of—we do six a year—we go into a local community, in this case Clinton, Md., and we surprise one of the local teams.
We go out there and practice, Allstate does a nice job of organizing a small clinic, and then at the end of the clinic, Allstate, unbeknownst to the kids, provides all the kids in the program with team uniforms, home and away, and bags and soccer balls and shinguards and everything the players need in order to play a soccer game and be properly outfitted.
With that, they also provide those kids with tickets to the US-Brazil game. And this one happens to be US-Brazil, one of the most famous teams in the world, and it’s the highlight of my night, seeing the expressions of the kids’ faces. So kudos to Allstate for what they do in the community and their support of the sport.
On Meeting a Hero
BR: How much of a thrill is that for you? Did you ever have anything like that happen to you when you were a kid?
TM: It really is [a thrill]. Once in my life, Hubert Birkenmeier, my hero growing up when he was with the (New York) Cosmos, came to see me play in an indoor game. We were in an indoor league that we participated in every year, and he was actually with a company and was signing some autographs. After one of the games, he came to see me play, and we became friends after that. He gave me a pair of gloves, and I’ll never forget it.
Of course, then gloves were really hard to come by. One, you couldn’t find them. Two, most parents didn’t have the money to buy them. So little gestures like that I never forgot, and this is an opportunity, of course this is a little bit bigger scale, but the look on each kid’s face when they open up the bags and get a ticket is priceless.
On Induction Speeches
BR: Let’s turn our attention to your Hall of Fame induction. Have you thought about what you’re going to say?
TM: You know, I did. Last week I wrote some stuff. I struggled with it for two or three weeks because when they first gave it to me, they said, "You’ve got 10 minutes," and I was like, "Oh, I won’t need 10 minutes." Now I go back after playing 20 years professionally, and I’m like, "Geez, 10 minutes is all I have?"
You realize how many—and it’s my fault for not realizing sooner—every one of the individuals. They did it individually, but collectively I never put it together to completely understand how many people there were along the way, how many teammates and fans and media and owners and family and friends that were involved in 20 years of doing what I did.
And tomorrow is that opportunity for me to at least some of those say, "Thank you for your support. It meant the world to me, and without you I could never have done it, for sure."
On Bruce Arena
BR: One of those people was Bruce Arena, who coached you in college with the national team and in MLS. When you first met him at the University of Virginia, did you ever think both of you would be here today?
TM: No. Simply, no.
I was lucky. Bruce is a big part of my speech, without giving too much away, because I was told to give nothing away. I think it’s well documented what Bruce meant to my career. It began and ended with him. It literally began with him and ended with him.
So if there’s any one coach—and there isn’t just one—I have him to thank for a big part of this whole thing for sure.
On His Fellow Inductees
BR: What do you think about the class you’re going in with? It’s a pretty strong class with Claudio Reyna, Desmond Armstrong and Tony DiCicco, who won a Gold Medal and a World Cup coaching the US Women’s National Team.
TM: I played a lot of games with Desmond early on. Great ambassador for the game. Great professional. Great family man.
And then Claudio. I think it’s strange—I was his captain in one World Cup, and he was my captain in another World Cup. We obviously grew up in New Jersey together, and he went to UVA after I was gone.
We have a lot of similarities, but I have just nothing but incredible respect for those gentlemen, and also Tony DiCicco, who on the field, did what he did with the Women’s National Team. But probably now we have the same interest and love for the position of goalkeeping.
It’s definitely a great class for me to be a part of. I’m proud and honored to be a part of the class with those guys.
BR: Let’s talk about the Brazil game. How big of a game is this for the US?
TM: Well, I think given what they did against Scotland the other night, there’s a lot of curiosity about the game, to see if they can—of course Brazil is one of the best teams in the world—to see if they can enjoy a little bit of the success of movement on the ball and possession in attack against Brazil that they did against Scotland.
I don’t think it’s going to be the same type of game because I’m not sure that they’ll pressure Brazil in their side of the field like they did Scotland, which ended up being the cause of the first goal that they scored, Landon’s first goal—because Brazil is a different team.
But having said that, it’ll be interesting. I talked to a couple of players today, and it seemed the sentiment was all the same, that, hey, this is an opportunity for them to try and see what they can do.
On American Goalkeepers
BR: Through the years, there have been some great American goalkeepers. After you were Kasey Keller (pictured) and Brad Friedel, and now we have Tim Howard. What do you think it is about American soccer that produces great keepers?
TM: I just think it’s an athletic position, it’s one that takes a lot of determination to get good at, a lot of hard work, and we’ve got guys that are obviously good athletes willing to get dirty and learn the position.
And the kids now have so much of a bigger advantage than I had, because they can watch this every week. They can watch Tim Howard and Friedel, and of course up until last year Kasey Keller. They can watch these guys on a weekly basis and learn.
Hopefully there are kids out there doing that. When I was playing, we had every four years, in the beginning, to watch a World Cup, and that was it. You had to digest it in three weeks and hopefully you learned something from it.
On the Best Keepers Today
BR: Who do you think are the best keepers in the game today?
TM: You know, it’s so hard to say who the best is. The one that I follow the most is Tim Howard (pictured), for obvious reasons.
But there are so many great goalkeepers around the world. I don’t know how you would separate one from the other because you’ve just got to fit in with your team and their needs. I’m sure if you go to Holland [or] Germany, you see so many great goalkeepers that are comfortable where they are and doing a great job for their team.
But I’m a Tim Howard fan.
On the Development of MLS
BR: What do you think about the development of MLS from when you played compared to today?
TM: I think that the level of play is at a high level right now. The one thing that sticks out is, not necessarily the quality of the American player, but how many there are now.
The pool of American players is so much bigger now, and that was a big concern when they talked about expansion. They didn’t want to water down the product back in the day, and now they can expand and feel good about the fact that they have enough players to fill those spots.
On USMNT Memories
BR: Let’s go back to your career. You made your international debut in 1988 and played in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 World Cups. What are some of your best memories from the early days?
TM: The best memory is still the Trinidad game (Meola the US beat Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, their first since 1950) because of what it meant and what it still means in the history of US soccer. First group to qualify in 40 years—that’s still something that’s special now.
We’re expected to qualify every four years, and we’re expected to go through. I’m sure Mexico has those same expectations, and it’s like everyone is fighting for the third spot (in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying) all the time.
But just from a playing standpoint, that one sticks out the most.
On Baseball and Bryce Harper
BR: There’s some interesting stuff on your Wikipedia page, and I was wondering if it was all true. It says you earned a varsity letter in baseball at Virginia and played drums in a band. Are all these things true?
TM: Well, yeah. At UVA, half my scholarship was baseball. That was actually where I thought I’d end up, so it just goes to show how life takes you in different directions sometimes. But once I met Bruce and talked to him and played for [him], it was clear that that’s what I wanted to do, go in that direction.
But it’s still part of my life (baseball). I still love the game, I still coach the game, and I spend an awful lot of time in the game of baseball. I’m a huge fan, and of course, now like everybody else, I’ve got a keen eye on the Nationals because of what they’re doing.
BR: Are you a Bryce Harper (pictured) fan?
TM: I am. My kids still have, in my oldest son’s room, the front page of the Sports Illustrated when Bryce Harper was on the cover, talking about how he was going to be a phenom.
Yeah, so we kind of casually follow, though we’re Yankee fans.
On Euro 2012
BR: Are you following Euro 2012 at all? Are you supporting any team?
TM: I just started on the way in today reading some stuff, so I’ll get back to you. Will I follow it, though? Yeah, absolutely.
BR: OK, Tony. Thanks for talking to us. I’m sure our readers will be excited to see what you have to say.
TM: Thank you. I appreciate your time. Take care.
If you'd like to follow Tony on Twitter, his handle is @TMeola1